Critical Thinking and the Throttle into Harmful Self-Criticism

By Nentapmun Gomwalk

Human psychology is one of the things that continually amazes me. It is so paradoxically complex and simple and has everything to do with our daily existence and our reactions to the things around us. One of the broadest aspects of psychology that amazes me is the idea of personality. The concepts of individuality, uniqueness, free will, the way the mind is an inexhaustible wonder, easily manipulated and also a weapon of mass destruction.

We’ve all heard the cliché that we are all “unique snowflakes”, particular in our very own way. This is debatable, and if you pay me enough money, I could argue it out as well. The clichés are valid. Everyone, no matter what can never go through the exact same set of circumstances and therein lies unique individuality. Of course, there are other factors to be considered, but this is the one thing that unites all individuals. That none can be the same, hence the name.
This individuality is what drives us to be who we are, and many things alter it or fundamentally harms our identity. Just as there are things that help us grow as individuals (such as high self-esteem, happiness, and so forth), there are things that are detrimental to our individual growth, such as negative self-criticism.

It is almost a joke how much we can be our own biggest enemy without even realizing it. That our own mind subconsciously threatens our being without us being aware is tragic. Just like a Shakespeare play.

The most elaborate definition of self-criticism I’ve found is a sort of mechanism which is “used to examine and evaluate our own behaviour, recognizing weaknesses, shortcomings and errors” (Nugent)
I have found that people filter out circumstances through different spheres. The most common of these spheres that I’ve seen are logic or emotions, masculinity or feminism (not in terms of gender or the movement but in values of achievement or quality of life respectively), or through the Myers Briggs Personality type index.
All these are ways through which we perceive various situations and react or make decisions concerning those situations or circumstances. The different spheres mentioned above are all broad topics that must be discussed at length, but we shall focus on the logic. When one of our filters leans towards reasoning or the more rational part of the brain, there is a tendency to move towards dangerous self-criticism.

Critical thinking is the driving motor that has made humans progress throughout the centuries. It is the instrument through which we asses situations and then make decisions. How then can this very same force drive one into constant self-torment, cynicism, and perilous self-criticism?
The most significant part of ourselves that comes into play here is the superego. According to the renowned psychologist, Sigmund Freud, the superego is the part of ourselves, which acts as a moral judge in comparison to the other parts of our personality (The id and the ego). This “moral judge” is what dictates to us right and wrong. This judgment, however, may find its roots in sources that are not always true. The superego provides a self-corrective rationale for improving our personal shortcomings, but if not actively monitored or controlled, the superego can spiral into a hateful and destructive belittlement of our very own selves.

When the superego provides constructive criticism and reasonable prohibitions, its positive growth is our ideal personality or our “ego ideal”. When the superego, however, is negative, it presents us with a false image of ourselves which rarely seeks to be better but instead revels in self-pity, cynicism, and abuse.

British psychotherapist Adam Philips writes, “Self-criticism, when it isn’t useful in the way any self-correcting approach can be, is self-hypnosis. It is judgment as a spell, or curse, not a conversation; it is an order, not a negotiation; it is dogma, not over interpretation” (Popova). This sort of absolute tyranny eventually trumps our own happiness, leaving nothing but dissatisfaction, depression and constant displeasure with oneself. Happiness as a value is continuously being underrated in our society, but it is ultimately a significant determinant of our quality of life.

Indeed, self-criticism is an essential tool for navigating life and our everyday environment. When we observe that our superego is driving us towards false truths about ourselves and unhappiness, it is vital to steer ourselves towards a more positive attitude and real interpretations of ourselves. Because it is a component of ourselves that we can never do away with, it is better that we learn to notice red flags or patterns of negative self-criticism and carry ourselves out of that pit. We are all beings inflicted eternally with doubt, uncertainty and dire predictions for our future, but there are a few ways to deal with our inner self-critic.

The first way to cope is being mindful of our thoughts and the way we talk to ourselves. We are always having a conversation with ourselves in our heads. A study by Fred Luskin, says humans have about 60,000 thoughts a day. Be mindful of those thoughts and use them to build yourself up instead of bringing yourself down.

Another critical factor is to relinquish the two horned devil of self-pity. Despite its murky disposition, self-pity is a place we often get comfortable in and even come to embrace our flaws. At this stage, we recognize the voice of pity and challenge it with that of positivity and reality. I have found that when I pity myself, it is because I am disappointed in myself or I am out of control of a situation. At these times, I find it best to realize that life is not perfect, and neither are any of us. Show me perfection, and I will show you a lie.

Lastly, we must learn to celebrate ourselves. We live in a world where it is more common to criticize than to celebrate. Celebrating yourself is like fuel to an engine, and we must remember that even the smallest of victories are still victories. Doing this builds us up and eventually leads us to loving ourselves more and being happy.
It is nearly impossible to find a life where we do not spend most of our time, mainly giving ourselves hell. I find comfort in the fact that if we can afford the hell we put ourselves through, then inevitably we can produce heaven for ourselves heaven as well.

Bibliography
Nugent, Pam. Psychology Dictionary. April 2013. <https://psychologydictionary.org/self-criticism/>.
Popova Maria. Brain Pickings. n.d. 2018 <https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/05/23/against-self-criticism-adam-phillips-unforbidden-pleasures/>.

Last modified: June 25, 2019

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